Catholic Bishops Face PR Crisis on Eve of Spring Meeting

Steve Brown | Key Life Radio Host and Bible Teacher | Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Catholic Bishops Face PR Crisis on Eve of Spring Meeting

( - On the eve of their 2003 spring meeting, U.S. Catholic bishops have been thrust back into an unwelcome spotlight, challenging their ability to repair what one public relations expert called "a classic error in crisis management" surrounding the Church's sex abuse scandal.

Former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating officially resigned Monday as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board - an all-lay person body overseeing the Church's efforts to remove priests proven to have sexually abused children. Keating's resignation has been linked in press reports to comments he made to the Los Angeles Times comparing the attitudes of some Church leaders to those of organized crime figures.

"To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy. Eventually, it will all come out," Keating told the Times, remarking on the activities of some Church officials during his tenure with the review board. Keating did not name any specific officials in his comments.

While acknowledging that some bishops had found his comments offensive, Keating's letter of resignation defended the remarks as "deadly accurate." In the letter, addressed to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Keating heaped on more criticism. "To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church."

Gregory responded in a letter to Keating, saying: "The board's contribution to resolving the sexual abuse crisis depends on its willingness to offer an honest appraisal of the steps being taken by the Bishops to protect children and young people. I know it was in this spirit that you sought to lead the Board during its first year, and I am sure it will continue in this fashion."

Also on Monday, Bishop Thomas O'Brien was arrested over a fatal hit-and-run accident in Phoenix, Ariz. This followed the settlement O'Brien reportedly reached last month with Maricopa, Ariz., County District Attorney Rick Romley, which allowed O'Brien to avoid a criminal indictment for obstruction of justice related to the sex abuse scandal. The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday that O'Brien admitted to concealing sex abuse cases involving priests and agreed to major diocesan reforms as part of the settlement.

The two incidents underscore the public relations problems that have been plaguing the Church since the sex abuse scandal erupted, said Skip King, president of the Portland, Maine-based Reputation Strategies.

"The Church made a classic error in crisis management at the start of this thing," King told "The Church failed to fully address the problem when the (sex abuse scandal) story first broke."

King said because Church leaders "let the story dribble out in piecemeal fashion" instead of turning the story into a "very ugly short-term one," they turned it into "an even uglier long-term one." He added that "the time to minimize the damage is long past.

"For all intents and purposes, it created a media feeding frenzy," King said, noting that when incidents like these "pop up," they bring the whole sex abuse issue again "to the forefront."

Unless the USCCB starts "getting pro-active" about the sex abuse scandals, King said the issue would "keep bubbling up ad infinitum."

King said the Church must prove "over a long period of time" that it is addressing these problems and get in front of bad news each time new instances of wrongdoing are uncovered.

"The Church is probably better off revealing bad news themselves. In other words, talking to reporters and if they find something, they should be making the first call because that gives them [the ability] to control the story a little bit," King said. "They need to be open about it. They need to show what they've discovered and what they've done about that individual situation, and what they're doing to make sure that situation can't happen again."

King pointed to the 1982 Tylenol poisonings (where seven people were murdered in the Chicago area by a disgruntled Tylenol employee who had placed cyanide in several bottles) as a "good example" of how to conduct crisis management. Because the company took responsibility, removed all of its products from the shelves immediately and replaced them with a new product, Tylenol survived the crisis, King said.

"Short-term, it was expensive," King added. "Long-term, it really helped them, and it helped the public."

Al Rothstein, president of Al Rothstein Media Services, told it was important for Catholic Church leaders to treat the Keating resignation and O'Brien arrest as "two different situations."

Rothstein said fact gathering was "the most important thing" for Church officials before they begin answering questions or making any public statements. "One mistake a lot of organizations make is being too quick to give statements," Rothstein said. "You have to be able to decide who to communicate with before giving out statements and not be at the mercy of the media."

Yet Rothstein said he is not "so sure" the Church has "done the wrong thing" in terms of public relations.

"A lot of times, it's a matter of perception, but I think people have to look at the end result rather than what has happened and how much time it takes," Rothstein said. "Sometimes, the public and reporters get impatient and want answers, but you've got to have some faith in the people running the show and that they are trying to do the best they can under the circumstances."

In the end, King said he "did not think" the Catholic Church would be "diminished," but "they aren't making their lives any easier" with the way they have been handling their current crises.

The Catholic bishops begin their three-day, semi-annual conference in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday.

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